Elwha River’s tribal ceremonial and subsistence fishery for coho salmon to open fall 2024

PORT ANGELES — The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, Olympic National Park (ONP), and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) announced that a tribal ceremonial and subsistence fishery for coho salmon on the Elwha River will be open for a limited time during fall 2024.

Additionally, the tribe, ONP and WDFW have agreed to extend the closure of other recreational and commercial fisheries in the Elwha River until June 2025. Recreational and commercial fishing will resume when there is broad distribution of spawning adults above the former dam sites, spawning rates allow for population growth and diversity, and a harvestable surplus of fish are returning to the Elwha River.

From late September to late October 2024, the tribe will conduct a limited harvest of adult coho salmon in a ceremonial and subsistence fishery on the lower 3 miles of the Elwha River. The timing of this fishery is designed to minimize impacts to non-target salmonid species, particularly federally listed chinook salmon and steelhead.

The coho fishery will be strictly regulated and include a mix of handheld gear and river nets. Nets will be limited to half the span of the river. Tribal fisheries biologists and enforcement officers will monitor this fishery intensively for compliance with regulations and to help ensure minimal impacts to non-target species. Data collected from this fishery will be crucial in developing future in-river commercial and recreational fisheries for coho and other salmon species.

In October 2023, the tribe harvested 177 coho in its first fishery following removal of the Elwha River dams, which began in 2011. 

For more than 100 years, the Elwha River dams blocked salmon access to more than 90% of the river, devastating the once abundant salmon population in this system. Since the start of dam removal, the tribe, WDFW and ONP voluntarily suspended all fish harvest on the Elwha River so salmon populations could recolonize their former habitats and rebuild their populations. In the 10 years since complete removal of the Elwha River dams, multiple salmon species have shown positive signs of recovery. Coho recovery has been a success story, thanks to the tribe’s hatchery and fish relocation efforts during and after the dam removal process.

The Elwha River system has been central to Elwha Klallam culture and lifeways since time immemorial. Until the early 20th century, Elwha tribal fishers relied on subsistence fishing in the Elwha River to provide wealth for their families. This fishery will provide an opportunity for tribal fishers to continue to access local fish from their namesake river, while ensuring continued recovery of coho salmon toward a self-sustaining population that can support recreational and commercial fisheries in the near future.

“WDFW supports the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s exercise of treaty rights in this ceremonial and subsistence fishery, and we are excited for what this means for recovery of coho salmon in the Elwha River,” said WDFW Coastal Region Fish Program Manager James Losee. “We also look forward to a time when fisheries are expanded to include commercial tribal fisheries and nontribal recreational opportunities and are continuing to monitor salmon recovery progress.”

“We started late last year but our fishery was a success,” said Tribal Vice Chairman Russ Hepfer. “I think our opener revitalized our youth to participate in salmon fishing. That is important to keep our traditions and culture alive. More importantly, it keeps our treaty fishery alive. We hope to learn from what worked and what didn’t to make our ceremonial and subsistence fishery even better this year. I look forward to it. My son and I set-netted near the river mouth and it was good to see him fishing on the river with me.”

Elwha River fish recovery monitoring is a long-term, cooperative effort involving the tribe, ONP, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey and WDFW. Each year, project partners evaluate spawner abundance, distribution and juvenile production throughout the river system using a variety of tools including sonar, redd surveys, snorkel surveys, tangle net surveys and smolt trapping.

The tribe, WDFW, and ONP continue to evaluate Elwha River coho salmon population data to refine long-term management objectives for their recovery. This includes Elwha River coho salmon escapement goals that provide for future commercial and recreational harvest opportunities.

Mountain lakes in the Elwha basin within ONP and Lake Sutherland will remain open to sport fishing from the fourth Saturday in April through Oct. 31.

WDFW works to preserve, protect and perpetuate fish, wildlife and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities.

For more information:

Tiffany Royal, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission: 360-621-5934
Bridget Mire, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife: 564-224-0845
Molly Pittman, Olympic National Park: 360-565-3005

Lower Elwha Klallam tribal member Levi Charles, left, fishes with his son Kolby Charles on the Elwha River in October 2023. Photo: Tiffany Royal